The next morning, after a night in a spectacularly seedy motel somewhere on Route 19, we have breakfast at a place called The Koffee Kup, in the strip mall across the highway from the motel, and I muse on how much you can tell about a community from the nature of its stores--here, a bridal store, a coin store, a liquor store, a power-tool store, a trophy store, and a hair salon. (Presumably we're close to a neatly coiffed, frequently married, frequently drunk tribe of coin collectors, driller-killers, and athletes). We cross the road back to the no doubt ironically-named Star Motel, and while we wait for Dara and Mark to shower, Brian sits across from me in a chair on the motel lawn and against a background din of traffic speeding by along the highway, reads out this apocalyptic rant, laid out across a whole page of a free local newspaper and titled, in large hand-written characters,
"JOHN IMBODENS DECLARATION OF WAR AGAINST STRAIGHT WHITE AMERICA: I wonder about a country more worried about celebrity transgression as if their lives fucking depend on million-dollar tabloid tattletale bullshit. This is a rant you mindless fuckers, if you want white bread, go find a hateful Christian person and suck their cock, accept their milky white body of Christ into your mealy, perfect teeth mouth, swallow, and you can be like me. I have got it. I am them. Them and us, us means you. We are those people, a whole society so marginalized, so denigrated and exploited by the media, the P.C. cult of the red ribbon, high-minded propaganda bullshitters. The red ribbon some how exonerates the shame monster that builds up and has built up until it nearly eats you alive. Every time you hear the word AIDS you shudder, thinking those people, those poor pitiful people, this red ribbon should help, and besides it's the thing to do, just ask Arsenio Hall. Yes, I've got it and I'm dying. And I pray with my so-called bohemian sisters and brothers who drink coffee, look for the truth, vomit and somehow maintain humour. I pray that I will live long enough to see Americans pull their heads out of the dark recesses, whether that is the eighteenth hole of denial, or a religion that preaches hate and redemption with strings attached, or their tight little assholes, and either get a clue or suffer and die, join our side, be them. Draw straws, bargain, we are living in hell and there are plenty of seats on the meat wagon. Yes, I am them, but if I must be the devil, the sinner, the dirty queer, the one who deserves to die, I accept, because I will laugh out loud when you and yours get sick and die the undignified deaths you've been foisting on us. We are us, you are them. Happy trails you fuckers."
"Jesus," I say, stunned by the anger and passion I recognize from my own flailing emotions during my son's, Joe's, struggle with cancer. I look at Brian, sitting there by the highway in front of this nowhere motel. "Maybe there is life in Tampa, after all?"
Brian, who has read the whole thing with a high degree of passion himself, stares at it again and says, "It's incredible! 'Those people, those poor people....Them and us, us means you.'" He slams the newspaper down in his lap, turns to me and grins with a terrifying, twisted intensity. "Happy trails, you fuckers."
I take the paper from him and read the poem again, the morning sun scorching my neck, a strange buzz of birdsong and rocket-powered traffic assaulting my brain . "John Imboden," I say , "can write!"
"And he's right about the red ribbon bullshit,"declares Brian. "They've tried to make AIDS just another fucking charity bonanza."' His eyes burn with the ferocity of John Imboden's words; among his friends on South Beach, Brian has seen plenty of the reality of AIDS. He grabs the paper back and reads: "'We are living in hell and there are plenty of seats on the meat wagon...'"
I could not speak to John Imboden that day, wherever we were outside Tarpon Springs, but I tracked him down later by phone, and with all the invisibility and anonymity and static and false silence afforded by AT&T's long distance lines between Miami and Tampa, we talked about his poetry and his life, about AIDS and the prospect of death.
I feel guilty--it was his body and soul we were discussing, but I had been there, as much as anyone can who does not have AIDS themselves. I had lived through two years, with Joe Buffalo and his mother, of spending months in hospital and out: two years of living with the possibility of death every day and every night; of lying next to Joe in bed and smelling the fevered salt sweat in his hair and begging some greater force--whatever was out there--that we might not lose the child we loved above anyone or anything in the world; two years of making the most painful and horrifying choices for his body, not our own.
So when John Imboden apologizes down the phone that he has to pee because he has trouble controlling his bladder--and then stays on the line talking, while I hear the flow of his urine into the toilet bowl--it feels more normal than all the neon Deco, million-dollar homes and giant Jetsons signs in Florida could ever do. And when I edge into the question of death and ask how he deals with that, I hear the absolute truth and clarity and hard-earned resignation in his voice, and sense that this is one of those conversations that goes beyond any immediate or casual purpose.
"Lately I've been thinking about dying," he says, "and it's been kind of scary, because I don't want to suffer. I've had the same nurse for about four years and we've talked about it, and she said, 'I'm not going to let you suffer.' I have a plan," he goes on, even-voiced. "I thought, if I came to it I'd O.D."
He pauses and there are some muffled noises while he moves about, then he says, "I don't have a problem with death. I've had enough friends die from this disease, and you want to let them go, because you're so fucking sick. It's freedom....I have spiritual beliefs, but I'm not a Christian. My main problem is I've been having a lot of pain lately. I have a port--a tube into my chest--and they've been giving me Demerol, but I got addicted to it. The problem with all these drugs is they're addictive. They were supposed to give me this experimental drug this morning, but I was in so much pain when I woke up that I called and canceled."
"How old are you?"I ask
"How long have you had AIDS?"
We talk a little about my son and John promises to send me some more poems.
"I talk to kids at school," he says, "and they ask, 'Well, how does it feel knowing you're going to die?' And I say, 'Well how does it feel knowing you're going to die?' I'll just deal with it--I'm not going to just lie down and take it!"